It’s 1985. You’re walking down a New York City street, minding your own business, when suddenly you’re accosted by a simple poster that innocently asks: “How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year?” The answer: just one, at the Museum of Modern Art. The Guggenheim, Metropolitan, and Whitney all score goose eggs. Using bold, black type on white paper, this poster has the look of unvarnished truth. You’ve just encountered one of the first statistical salvos from the Guerrilla Girls, art activists and the self-proclaimed “conscience of the art world.”
As cofounder a decade earlier of a Minneapolis women’s arts collective that likewise used data to protest art-world inequity, I was impressed by the Girls’ shockingly simple, yet amazingly effective tactics. The use of statistics. The way they named names. The way they got personal. “These galleries show no more than 10% women artists or none at all,” blared one poster that listed 20 names, among them the most influential and prestigious galleries in the world. Or: “John Russell thinks things are getting better for women artists. Guerrilla Girls think he should read his own paper.” The graph shows a downward trend line for the New York Times’s Russell and four other critics, none of whom devoted more than 30 percent of their reviews for one-person shows to women artists between 1981 and 1984.
These poster campaigns weren’t what artists were supposed to do. Artists were supposed to work diligently in their studios, create aesthetic products, and wait for their prints to come. But here was a group of women artists scrutinizing shows, galleries, and reviews and reporting their findings. “What are you going to do about it?” was the implied question to everyone who stumbled across one of these posters. It was a confrontational challenge to the art world powers-that-be and a sly invitation to all artists to get out of the studio and start agitating for changes in their own workplaces.
In an art world where the first thing that art students learn to do is sign their names with a flourish, the Guerrilla Girls remained anonymous. We didn’t know who they were. They wore gorilla masks, and each took the nom de guerre of a deceased woman artist. Like some faceless bureaucracy, they billed their work as “a public service message.” Their very anonymity was an affront to the Great Artist Syndrome in Western art. They explained that, as artists and art workers, they feared retribution if their individual identities were known. But being anonymous gave the Girls delicious freedom to tell it like it is–and like it isn’t.
If being confrontational and anonymous was a big departure from art world decorum, the Guerrilla Girls were also hilarious. One of my favorite posters, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, was not only laugh-out-loud funny, but struck resonant chords. It offered a list of tongue-in-cheek “advantages,” among which were: “Working without the pressure of success” and “Having an escape from the art world in your 4 freelance jobs.” My favorite “advantage?” “Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius,” that built on art historian Linda Nochlin’s influential 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
A decade before the Guerrilla Girls put up their first poster, WARM made a similar assault on sexism in the Twin Cities art scene. The year was 1976, and WARM was the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota. That April, I joined with 39 other passionate and determined women artists to open a gallery in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis to show the Twin Cities’ art community what women could do. With high hopes and not a little trepidation, we combined our energy and wisdom to establish a center for women’s art that would lead to our recognition as professional artists–after 5,000 years of absence from the canons of Western art history.
It’s hard for me, even as a founding member of the gallery, to remember the sheer intensity of those days of the 1970s women’s movement. Women’s social and professional roles, along with their individual ideas about self-worth and identity, were changing rapidly. Feminists across the country as well as in Minnesota protested discrimination. We heard of the establishment of women-only galleries and spaces in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul (now St. Catherine University) developed a one-year experiment in feminist art education. This program brought in national figures like Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, Lucy Lippard, and Arlene Raven for public lectures and exhibitions; it was at events like these that many of the early members of WARM first met each other. And each of us was getting her consciousness raised.
We had great expectations when we opened WARM (“a women’s collective art space”) to the public on the evening of April 10, 1976, with a members’ group show. Still, it was something of a shock when 1,500 people showed up. It was so crowded that people took turns coming inside, and the air was thick with cigarette smoke and excitement. The gallery was the culmination of several years of meetings in homes and studios, attending women’s conferences, organizing exhibitions in satellite venues, and scouting locations for a permanent home.
No longer isolated as artists, we were now “out” to the community as well. We knew we had something valuable and new, but we heard persistent voices challenging our claims. In the 1970s, people said that women artists really didn’t need a special place because we had plenty of opportunities for exhibiting our work, to get it reviewed, to get jobs in the arts, and to otherwise garner support for our careers. It was our own fault (we were probably just bad artists, they whispered) that none of this seemed to be happening for us, and building our own gallery was downright selfish when there were so many really important issues to deal with.
We knew discrimination in the local art world to be a fact. It had happened to us, and we decided to document it. Working through the basement archives at the Walker Art Center, collective members Linda Gammell and Dorothy Odland determined that, between 1960 and 1969, of the Walker’s 72 one-person shows–then commonly referred to as “one-man” shows–68 featured men (94.4 percent), while only four showcased the work of women. Of the group shows where artists were listed by name, 88.8 percent of artists were male and 11.2 percent were female. Data from 1970 to 1974 was similar: Of 20 one-person shows, 18 were by men, two by women. In group shows where artists were named, 96 were men (88.1 percent), 13 were women (11.9 percent). One all-woman show was found: Textiles and Ceramics, in 1949, featured six Minnesota women artists. The 1940s, in fact, were found to be the best decade for women artists at the Walker before 1974: women made up 24 percent of artists shown in its popular Biennials.
Looking through the archives at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Dee Axelrod and Sandra Kraskin counted 349 total exhibitions between October 1953 and June 1967. Of these, 14–four percent–showed the work of a woman artist. So slim were the pickings, they also reported a 1964 show called Mother and Child in Modern Art.
If only WARM had thought to print these statistics on posters and put them up around town like the Guerrilla Girls!
The WARM collective used our compiled statistics to make our case to funders, the media, gallerists, and curators, as well as to the general public. Ours was a more low-key approach, presented in grant applications, magazine articles, letters to the editor, and conversations. And it worked. Grants were won, exhibitions were mounted with more women artists, and reviews became more inclusive.
When we first saw it, the space that became the WARM Gallery was a wreck. But we saw the potential to build a professional gallery and we determined to transform it ourselves. For three months, members met every Saturday morning in planning sessions, organizing work crews to scrape the linoleum off the wood floors, rebuild walls, and spray paint the ceiling and walls. The only job done by others was the electrical wiring–and we tried to hire women electricians, but there weren’t any.
Simultaneously, we were also devising new ways to be together and function as a group. As we organized ourselves to transform the gallery space, we were trying to figure out how to work together so everyone had an equal voice. Today you can read books and attend seminars on consensus building, but in the mid-1970s we were the pathfinders. We started by sitting in a circle–function follows form–and worked through big issues and small details. Everyone was given time to speak. Meetings lasted for hours, discussions got off track and meandered around. It was glorious. It was confounding. We knew we were building something new.
WARM’s primary endeavor was our monthly art exhibitions, and we initiated other projects to educate the public and ourselves. The collective published the semiannual WARM Journal to make up for continued critical neglect. Three of our most ambitious projects included the Feminist Perspectives lecture series, the Mentor-Protégée program, and a national women’s visual art conference. We curated outreach exhibitions, including Women Invite Women, Private Collectors and Art by Women, and Diversity of Vision: Contemporary Works by African-American Women. We featured nationally-recognized artists Harmony Hammond and Joan Snyder in solo exhibitions.
The quality and relevance of WARM exhibitions and activities generated attention and excitement. Public opinion changed. By the mid-1980s, when the Guerrilla Girls took their activism to the streets, WARM Gallery was a key player in a vibrant Twin Cities arts scene that revitalized the Minneapolis Warehouse District. The largest women’s collective gallery in the country from 1976 until its closing in 1991, WARM put its distinctive midwestern imprint on the national women’s art movement.
The Guerrilla Girls continue to be relevant into the 21st century. The 2015 update of their classic 1985 poster, “How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year?” shows that the number of shows by women has doubled: the Modern showed two women and the Guggenheim, Metropolitan, and Whitney each showed one. (There’s still room for improvement.) The Guerrilla Girls also reach out to new audiences, and they attracted a standing-room-only crowd at St. Catherine University last October. They engaged students in workshops at St. Catherine and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, giving young artists the tools and encouragement to make their own statements about the injustices they witness.
Now called the Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota, WARM continues its mission to bring women artists together and provide them with opportunities for professional growth. As part of the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover, WARM is sponsoring the exhibition WARM Guerrillas: Feminist Visions. Opportunities for women artists have definitely improved since the WARM Gallery was founded 40 years ago, in no small part due to the efforts of the women of WARM, but parity is still not a given.
Another outgrowth of the 1970s women’s art movement is the Women’s Art Institute, an intensive summer residency program for advanced women artists at St. Catherine University, founded by Elizabeth Erickson in 1999. I first met Elizabeth at one of those spirited WARM meetings in someone’s living room in the early 1970s. With the others, we founded the gallery and worked closely together on the WARM Journal. Out of our experience we developed the curriculum for the institute, organizing it around questions that the students bring. Their relationship to feminism and their roles as women and as artists are recurring themes: What does it mean to have a woman’s body and make art? Is feminism a conscious practice that I bring to my art? What responsibility do I have to historical and contemporary women’s themes and methods?
As the current director of the Women’s Art Institute, I witness the struggle of women artists to claim their authentic artistic voices in a male-dominated society and to summon the confidence to share their artwork with the public. Our institutions, great and small, must be open and encouraging to not only the visions of women, but to people of color, to the LGBTQ community, and to all those whose stories have been excluded from the grand narratives of history. The work that WARM and the Guerrilla Girls began is just now beginning to develop a full head of steam.